On Nerves, Art, and Spanish: Presenting at a conference for the first time

By World Language Teacher Leisa M. Quiñones-Oramas


After much planning and anticipation, Saturday morning was finally upon me. I was the first to arrive at the conference room. As I laid out examples of student work on the tables, the sky outside echoed my nerves. Gushes of wind splattered the window with rain drops. Leaves trembled in unison with my shaking hands. As I greeted my co-presenter Nicole, our first attendee quietly arrived and sat in the last row. She was followed by another, and then another. The clock arms inched closer to 8:30am, our starting time. Everything was ready, our materials were all organized, our electronic devices were up and running, and our microphones were plugged in. My heart was beating fast, and my mind was eager. Finally, Nicole addressed our audience. Twenty or so faces looked expectantly at both of us. Nicole turned towards me. It was my cue. I started to talk…

On October 27th, I co-led a three-hour workshop at the annual conference of the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association (MaFLA) in Springfield, Massachusetts. After attending more than ten different literature- and education-related conferences over my last eight years in Boston, it was the very first time I was invited to present my own work. I was elated, excited, and nervous for the chance to share my craft with other teachers from across New England.

The opportunity arose earlier in the school year, when I was approached by Nicole Claris, Manager of School Programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to co-present with her at the event. Our workshop, entitled “Art of the Spanish-speaking World,” had a dual purpose. Nicole would introduce and create connections between works of art from Spain and Latin America available in the MFA’s vast collection, while I would describe how I’ve incorporated some of these artworks into my classes, and guide an in-depth brainstorm session for teachers to develop concrete ways to use the collection in their lessons.

For the last four years, I have worked alongside Nicole and around twenty-five other teachers from New England as a member of the museum’s Educator Advisory Board. The board’s task is to advise and support the museum’s School Programs Department in developing and promoting programs for students and teachers in the Greater Boston area. My involvement with the board and the museum has undoubtedly shaped how I approach and bring art into my Spanish classroom. In many ways, the MFA’s collection of resources has led me to consider visual art as not only a cultural representation of different regions and time periods, but as a central text that enriches my classes and serves as inspiration for the projects that my own students create.

We had Parent-Teacher conferences on Friday the 26th, the day just before my conference, and I had the opportunity to describe to Meridian parents the work their children were doing in Spanish class so far. Parents learned about students’ exploration of México’s rich popular culture while creating alebrije sculptures; their grasp of the complex meaning in Hispanic Caribbean poetry through the use of images and drawing; and their use of art and abstract representation to create ABC picture books about themselves. As we talked, I simultaneously realized how much art I asked the kids to produce in my Spanish classes, and how lucky I was to be able to do so. I knew that in less than 24 hours, I would be standing in front of a group of language teachers interested in enriching their curriculum with the vast collections from the MFA. I also knew that, depending on their schools and districts, many of these educators might not have the same freedom I enjoy to plan their courses creatively.

Back in the conference room, my nerves had completely dissipated. The audience’s eyes scanned an image of three unique sculptures. I was in the middle of explaining how I had collaborated with Emily, Meridian’s art teacher, on a unit about Taíno mythology in which students created small deity-inspired sculptures known as cemí. Suddenly, a man opened the room’s door and asked, “Wasn’t this session over 15 minutes ago?” Our three hours had flown by. Our audience had been welcoming, attentive, and inquisitive. They were blown away by the materials, historical background, and connections that Nicole shared with them. They also asked encouraging questions about my unit planning process, my students’ reactions to and involvement with the materials, and their final projects.

As I left the room, my bag was emptier. All of my copied resources had been left in the hands of eager teachers. However, my mind was full of thoughts and assurances. This experience reminded me of one of the reasons I originally decided to become a teacher: to share and build knowledge through community and collaboration.

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